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Japan immigration

Japan turns to tech to help foreign blue-collar workers

Businesses under pressure to address labor issues and meet UN standards

Vietnamese trainee work at a building site in Tokyo. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- A public and private group in Tokyo will trial a smartphone app that allows foreign blue-collar workers to file complaints and report problems.

The app will recognize any issues, including those related to visas, working conditions, housing and taxation. The group wants to raise the profile of the app among foreign workers so that they can report any issues that can then be recorded and eventually harnessed to develop a chatbot service using artificial intelligence.

The project is initiated by JP-Mirai, a multibody platform that oversees labor conditions for migrant workers. The group was established in November under the initiative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government aid agency, and the Global Alliance for Sustainable Supply Chain or ASSC, a nongovernmental organization comprising businesses, labor unions and civic groups.

A similar app already exists commercially in Japan, but not on a scale large enough to cover the nation's foreign worker population, especially the roughly 400,000 blue-collar workers. A government body that oversees the employment of such workers, the Organization for Technical Intern Training, relies on email and phone calls to communicate with them. Some employers, however, want a mechanism to identify and sort out problems more quickly and before they blow up into legal issues.

JP-Mirai will begin next year a trial of the app that will be made available to 20,000-30,000 foreign workers, according to Kenichi Shishido, vice president at Japan International Cooperation Agency. Queries will be handled by JP-Mirai staff, but automation will ultimately be essential if the service is to cover the entire foreign worker population of 1.7 million, he said. Shishido expects the number of foreign workers in Japan to increase to 3 million to 4 million in the future.

The project is backed by some large corporations.

"If it becomes possible to monitor the work environment of supply chain companies, it will make the auditing of our corporate social responsibility so much more effective," said Yozo Nakao, an official responsible for sustainability practice at food producer Ajinomoto, an ASSC member.

"The challenge is to make sure that worker rights are respected not just at your own company, but also at the suppliers you do business with, a rule stipulated under the U.N. guiding principles on business and human rights," Nakao said.

A company's corporate social responsibility score will improve if it can enhance its complaints and feedback processes, Nakao said.

Like Ajinomoto, publicly listed companies are requested by environmental, social and governance assessment agencies to provide information about their adherence to human rights principles, including stating if they have a complaints process in place, according to Emi Akiyama, a consultant at sustainability consultancy Cre-en.

Large companies usually have such systems, but their suppliers often do not, she adds. ESG assessment looks not only at the companies in question, but also at their supply chains, she said.

The number of foreign blue-collar workers in Japan dropped 4.5% at the end of 2020 from a year ago due to the COVID pandemic. Since February, the entry of foreign blue-collar workers has been suspended, but their number is expected to start increasing again once COVID has been brought under control and borders reopen.

JICA's Shishido says that attracting foreign workers would become harder in the future as labor shortage intensifies in China, which, like Japan, is also facing an aging population. Shishido expects Japan and China to soon start competing for foreign workers.

Foreign blue-collar workers typically enter Japan on trainee visas and are allowed to work for only one sponsor company during their three-year stay. This means that if the sponsor company falls into financial trouble due to the pandemic-induced recession, trainees could lose their livelihoods.

Some trainees have also not been able to return to their home countries due to the suspension of international flights. Finding another sponsor and getting a different visa have become pressing issues.

Around half of trainees seek extensions of their stays, according to Susumu Nagahashi, director at Business Co-operative Society MEC, a group that recruits foreign blue-color workers for small businesses in and around Tokyo. One of the issues is that trainees are not allowed to bring dependents.

Nagahashi added: "Many want to get married and settle down. Once they earn enough money, they'd rather go back home and get married." Around 71% of trainees in Japan are in their 20s.

Japan created a new visa category in 2019 for blue-collar workers, allowing them to stay for five more years after a three-year trainee program and to choose an employer as long as they stay in the specified industry. Japan aims to have 350,000 such specified skilled workers, but has so far attracted only 29,144, according to figures at the end of June.

From the employers' standpoint, language remains an issue. Very few trainees become fluent in Japanese after three years, said Nagahashi, the trainee program operator. This has made it harder for trainees to assimilate into the community.

One way that Japan believes could help to bring in foreign workers is through investment in their home countries. Samsung Electronics is one such example, with its investment in Vietnam. Local workers have been keen then to move to South Korea to learn the ropes in hopes of returning home to work for Samsung in Vietnam.

In this vein, Tokyo-based startup, Institute of Foreign Student & Human Resources Total Support Organization, set up a joint venture in Vietnam with a local construction company in July. Around 55% of blue-color workers in Japan are from Vietnam and the startup says that the joint venture could provide jobs for Vietnamese trainees when they return.

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